Colombia’s Establishment and False Positives: The Case for and Against it

By COHA Research Fellow Rachel Godfrey Wood
Part Two of a Two Part Memorandum

This second section of a two part article analyses the Colombian Government’s response to the “false positives” scandal. It finds that while measures by the authorities appear to have been significant, it may be too early to say whether false positives will become a repulsive practice of the past or will live on in some distorting form. Meanwhile, the Government’s complaints about “false denunciations” are as of yet unsubstantiated, and not overtly convincing, nor do they reliably contribute to the resolution of the issue. Meanwhile, the victims’ families struggle on in the face of poverty, threats and sometimes slanderous accusations apparently aimed at tarnishing the posthumous reputation of their sons. Moreover, their only consistent defender, Personero of Soacha Fernando Escobar, finds himself fearing for his life after repeated threats from mysterious groups, almost certainly linked to the far-right.

Government Response
The most significant government response to date has been the forced resignation of 27 senior military officers on October 30, an unprecedented act in the history of the armed forces. Some scholars, such as Michael Evans, believed this step to be insufficient as it did not have any legal implications for those involved. However, both CINEP and Fernando Escobar consider it to have been a move in the right direction, in the sense that it has sent a strong message throughout the army that false positives will not be acceptable. The legal aspect, they point out, is the responsibility of the Fiscalia, rather than of the Government. Liberal Senator José Manuel Galan has accused the Government of failing to cooperate sufficiently with the Fiscalia, a claim which it strenuously denied. To date, the Fiscalia has detained 426 soldiers in relation to the false positive scandal, 49 arising in Soacha. Moreover, what transpired is being investigated by the United Nations, which has sent Philip Alston, the Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, to Colombia to compile a report on the issue.

Combined with the Fiscalia’s ability to find, charge and punish the guilty soldiers, the most important factor that needs to be addressed is whether the government really has put an end to the false positives. In a recent letter to the newspaper El Espectador, the Ministry of Defense claimed to have made “15 decisions” designed to end them. Senior generals such as Freddy Padilla have insisted that the perverse system of incentives has been reformed, a move which should theoretically reduce the incentives to kill civilians. Such changes led former Minister of Defense Juan Manual Santos to claim earlier this year that “no new false positives have been committed,” although he was forced to retract the boast in the face of emerging reports of a false positive occurring on December 25. Since this flurry of activity, there have actually been claims of six more false positives. Mauricio Garcia refuses to make a strong judgment one way or another. “It´s just too early to say”, he earnestly claims.. “Until we have the evidence, we cannot make a judgment about whether the Government measures have been effective or not”.

More Cases, Greater Elaboration
As Fernando Escobar points out, an absence of denunciations should never be interpreted as an absence of abuses. It is no secret that Colombia is a treacherous place to denounce crimes, as those who speak out are routinely subjected to threats and sometimes acts of violence, including being murdered. Various mothers of Soacha have been threatened, including Doña Maria, who was warned to “keep quiet” by a man on a motorbike. Moreover, the Personero who defends them, Fernando Escobar, has been threatened five times by a group claiming to be the “Paramilitaries of Cundinamarca” (the Department around Bogotá) . Such threats often lead to known victims who somehow have escaped with their lives, remaining silent in fear of the consequences of disclosure. Finally, the potential victims of false positives could come from such dysfunctional backgrounds that there might simply not be anyone to make a denunciation for them.

Colombia, a Land of Ideologized Realities

While the Government has tried to demonstrate a significant effort to deal with the false positives, it has simultaneously carried out a seemingly contradictory campaign against what it disingenuously has termed “false accusations”. Uribe has frequently made the case that such “false accusations” are every bit as serious as the actual phenomena, and that they are made by political sectors with the intention of delegitimizing the army, the government, and Bogota’s democratic security policy, in favor of the FARC. On May 8, he made his most outspoken accusations to date, denouncing lawyers paid by unidentified “international organizations,” for working to make “hate(ful) and ideological(ly) bias(ed) false denunciations against the armed forces.” Such statements demonstrate the massive sensitivity of the issue. As Fernando Escobar points out, Colombia suffers from an “ideologized reality,” in which all analyses of events or situations immediately mark one out for being either pro or anti-government. This manifests itself in the treatment of various issues, including the statistics regarding the number of displaced people, kidnappings, and resurgent paramilitaries who make up the scene This climate makes any analysis of the phenomena like the false positives themselves – highly treacherous endeavors.

The constant suggestion that human rights groups present “inflated” statistics have rarely been corroborated. As Mauricio Garcia points out, CINEP´s treatment of the false positives, as with all human rights abuses, has been consciously methodical and conservative, rejecting all but the most proven cases of brutalities. In the past, CINEP reports have even been used by the Government and U.S. State Department, indicating the high regard its investigation and methodology are regarded. Such rigorous standards were utilized to come with the statistic of 635 false positive victims since 2002. This figure is almost certainly too low, and the Fiscalia is investigating cases involving 1,666 potential victims since 1998. Liberal Senator Juan Manuel Galan claims the figure could rise to 2,000.

The government´s overly generalized, blanket statements dismissing the magnitude of the scandal are as yet unfounded, dangerous, and could easily tarnish people like Escobar and Garcia Moreover, they are contrary to the image of a government genuinely trying to resolve the problem. In the words of Gustavo Gallón, director of the Colombian Commission of Jurists, no more than sophisms of distraction. The grave problem is that of the proven assassination of civilians outside of combat and later presented as guerrilleros. If there are false accusations, they should be investigated, but to say what the President says without specifying anything does not contribute to the human rights situation in our country. The President´s heart is not on the side of the victims, rather on that of the culprits.
Furthermore, the President´s proposal to respond with the establishment of a separate judicial system for the army demonstrates a remarkable disregard for the country´s existing judicial institutions and the gravity of the crimes being committed

Families Still Wait for Justice
In response to the victims’ families, the Government has yet to respond with sobriety. In Doña María´s words, the President “can´t even bear to look at us”. Mothers like Doña Maria have had virtually no contact with the authorities, although she does claim that Uribista Senator Nancy Patricia Gutierrez (also under investigation for links to paramilitaries) scorned them for “washing dirty linen in public.” “Well, when you can´t wash it at home, you have to take it to the dry cleaners!” is Maria´s response. Some organizations have been in contact with the mothers, but not for sustained periods of time. According to the mothers, the only individuals who consistently have assisted them have been Escobar and his assistants. Beyond them, Senators like Juan Manuel Galan and Cecilia López of the Liberal Party and Gustavo Petro of the Polo Democratico actively have been keeping the issue in the spotlight. “Now I don´t feel like we´re alone”, says Maria. “Although he (Uribe) would like us to be (alone), I know there are people who want to help us. When I went on the (March 6) protest, I realized there are lots of people who have suffered the same thing.”

Finally, it was on April 21 that the survivors of some of the victims saw some sort of institutional recognition of the suffering of the mothers of Soacha. In an extraordinary meeting in Soacha, the Commander of the Armed Forces Freddy Padilla sat and listened to the tragic stories of three mothers of the municipalities’ false positive victims. Visibly moved, he profusely apologized for the crimes and admitted that “what happened is not justifiable”. He maintained, however, that this type of behavior “is not in the nature of the armed forces,” and that “democratic security is also a policy of human rights.”

The Victims Speak Out
Beyond the suffering caused by the initial loss, the mothers and wives of Soacha also have had to suffer criticism from some sectors which have tried to tarnish either them or their sons. During a recent tribunal in Soacha, Doña Luz, mother of 26 year-old and mentally disabled victim Fair Leonardo Porras, had to put up with the audacity of the defendant´s lawyer trying to blame her for neglecting her son, and thereby causing his disability. It is more than likely that this strategy of tarnishing the victims and their family members has not been isolated to the courtroom. Nidia claims that the Procudaria (attorney general) possesses documents which claim that her ex-husband was a drug dealer, and that he had spent time in jail during 2006, something she vehemently denies. In her own words: “I know no one will believe me because I´m his ex-wife, but Joaquin was not a criminal. Sure, he might have been a bad husband, and sometimes, a bad father. He liked drinking and partying too much and that´s why we split up, but he never spent time in jail either.”

It is unclear whether there is any general strategy of damaging the reputations of the victims and their families, but such allegations must be dealt with in order to rule out the possibility of the public authorities trying to give the “false positives” an implicit legitimacy by harming the victims’ names.
Beyond the emotional toll of her loss, the increased economic pressure on Nidia has been intense. She has had to increase her working hours to make up for her ex-husband´s absence, and does not even have the time or money to take their disabled child to the therapy which she so desperately needs. Some say that the government is neglecting the mothers because by helping them would be interpreted as an admission of guilt on the government’s part. But if this is the case, it becomes a poor justification for such abandonment, and demonstrates a heartlessness that has left a stench of bitterness in Soacha. Most worryingly of all, the Governments´s proposal for the new “Law of the Victims” explicitly offers less rights and reparations to victims of agents of the state than to those of illegal groups.

To date, neither Maria nor Nidia have appeared before the tribunals. Maria would like to, but says she does not think she´s capable of it: “What could I possible say to them if they´ve already become machines? I used to think they were men of honor, not cowards like this. Of course, there must be good ones as well as bad ones, but at the end of the day, a man is known by the company that he keeps.” Remarkably, Nidia does not feel the same generalized hatred towards the army. Even after everything she has been through, she is reluctant to condemn the institution that was responsible for her ex-husband´s death. “There are good ones and bad ones,” she says, somewhat resigned. She rarely raises the issue with her military brothers, but when she has, they have assured her that the army believes in human rights, that soldiers regularly treat wounded guerrillas, and that they “would never do a thing like that.”

Society´s Failure, Colombia´s Loss
Although their relatives are unlikely to admit it outright, there is an undeniable question mark over what sort of work the victims thought they were going to be doing in the countryside when they responded to the job offer. The fact that none of them informed their loved ones of their plans or specified the job, or their exact destination, suggests the possibility that they expected to be doing some kind of illegal work. As mentioned previously, when Escobar first noticed the disappearance of young men from Soacha, he originally denounced it as proof that the recruitment of minors by illegal armed groups was taking place, because it bore the same hallmarks of such an operation. The theory that the victims believed they would be engaged in some form of illegal activity is supported by various testimonies of some participants, such as Fabian Sanjuan Santiago, who told the newspaper El Espectador that he regularly received young men in Ocaña who were convinced that they were going to be recruited into some form of paramilitary organization. Moreover, the testimonies of would-be victims who, at the final moment, refused to leave their homes, have confirmed this possibility. The idea that the victims of Soacha believed they actually would be the perpetrators of an illicit endeavor may not be palatable, but it is not entirely improbable either. In Colombia, like in many other war-torn countries, the line between victim and perpetrator can often be an ambiguous one.

The victims’ common denominator is that they were all under-educated, unskilled and unemployed. In fact, they probably had quite a lot in common with their killers. The tragic reality is that in a country which maintained high (even in a regional context) levels of unemployment even during the last 5 years of high growth, there are many young, poor males willing to step outside commonly accepted legal and moral boundaries in order to better themselves, or at least give some meaning to their lives. None of this makes the false positive phenomenon any less anti-society, but it does force home the point that Colombia´s social problems feed violence and conflict. The false positives are, in some ways, just a more recent manifestation of this endemic quagmire. In the words of Fernando Escobar “Our young people have been drug traffickers, assassins, guerrillas, paramilitaries, and now, false positives. Until our society can offer them dignified life projects, there will be no limit to the damage done to them, or that they will do to others.”

Who is Guilty? In terms of the culpability of the Uribe Government the jury is clearly still out. Few could deny that its use of incentive structures to encourage aggressive actions against the FARC has been a key factor in this catastrophe. At the same time, no one has made a convincing or determinative case of demonstrating that false positives are a result of any conscious or coordinated Government policy. It is more likely that, instead of ordering such atrocities, some of Colombia´s high-ranking soldiers and officials, whether systematically or not, looked in the wrong direction, unwilling to risk delegitimizing the armed forces. Hopefully such facts will one day be known to all, something that can only come about once Colombia’s government is brave and honest enough to declassify the documents.

False positives demonstrate the extent to which Colombia´s war has eroded the morality of its combatants. Fundamental questions have to be asked about the army culture that partially has been revealed. The process implies the existence of significant numbers of soldiers who are not the romantic heroes shown on the television, radio, and billboards across the country. Rather, they are solely interested in personal gain, regardless of what they have to do to achieve it. Only an intensive historical investigation of army culture and attitudes could exactly determine exactly how such a culture developed, and how far-reaching it has actually become. At the same time, it would still be prudent to heed Nidia´s reluctance to condemn the armed forces in their entirety. As Escobar points out, false positives are “almost certainly the exception, rather than the rule.” After all, there are 400,000 members in Colombia´s armed forces, far more than the 1 to 2,000 possible cases of false positives. However, there are heroes in Colombia´s army, possibly even Nidia´s brothers, who really do come from humble backgrounds, have risked life and limb to keep the FARC hemmed back.

What cannot be debated, though, is the suffering of the victims’ mothers and wives. These are generally honest, hard-working women like Maria and Nidia who have had to struggle their whole lives only to suffer from the type of inhumanity that could only happen to the poor, the powerless, and the unconnected. They have had their sons, husbands and brothers deceived and killed for insultingly small amounts of money and petty benefits, and have not even received a measly peso in compensation. Despite being threatened, they don´t have the bodyguards or bullet proof vehicles that the rich routinely would expect as a basic right. Worst of all, their poverty barely allows them time to reflect on their losses. These women shoulder pressures and responsibilities that would defy the comprehension of the average wealthy individual, and they do it for the safety and security of the children and grand-children who depend on them. It seems that if we really want to talk about Colombian heroes (or heroines), we should probably start off with them.